Nature | Editorial

Harsh reality

Two reports highlight the plight of postdocs on both sides of the pond aiming for academia.

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When hundreds of UK scientists were asked in a recent exercise to describe high-quality scientific research, the most popular word that they suggested was “rigorous”. Most were probably referring to its dictionary definition as “extremely thorough and careful”. But more than a few must have been aware that the word has some other, equally valid, synonyms: rigidly severe, harsh, tough.

Good science is tough. But is it also harsh and severe? And if so, does it need to be? At what point do the legitimate demands of competitive academic research tip into a demoralizing lack of job security and intolerable pressure? It has been said before, not least in these pages, but two reports published this week on either side of the Atlantic highlight perhaps the most common pinch point: the postdoctoral years. Although the lament of the postdoc may be a familiar cry, all who care about the current state of science and where it is heading would do well to look at the separate reports, which present a visceral and honest snapshot of opinions from life in the squeezed middle of academia.

The UK report is the work of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. Earlier this year, it surveyed 970 people involved in research at UK universities and institutions, and held detailed discussions with another 740. Postdocs made up the largest single group, but significant numbers of respondents held more senior posts, right up to heads of department.

The US effort is a write-up of an October seminar held by postdoc researchers in and around Boston, Massachusetts (G. S. McDowell et al. F1000 Res. http://doi.org/xg9; 2014). It is published ahead of a related symposium at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which starts this weekend.

Given a platform to complain, most people will. Both reports grumble about perennial problems that are perceived to run through research. Government funding is insufficient, external focus on journal impact factors stifles creativity, and bureaucracy and distractions mean that everyone has less time to spend on what they really want to do.

“Research in 2014 is a brutal business.”

These are common legitimate concerns, but how about this: a whopping 58% of scientists in the UK report said that they were aware of colleagues feeling tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity or standards. Asked whether they felt this way themselves, just 21% of scientists aged 35 or over said yes; strikingly, that figure shot up to one-third of those aged under 35. In the United States, postdocs consistently called themselves “the lost people” and “the invisible people”. The US report states that “junior scientists are primarily treated as cheap labor rather than as participants in a well-rounded training program”.

It is no longer acceptable for senior scientists to ignore such complaints. Research in 2014 is a brutal business, at least for those who want to pursue academic science as a career. Perhaps the most telling line comes from the UK report: of 100 science PhD graduates, about 30 will go on to postdoc research, but just four will secure permanent academic posts with a significant research component. There are too many scientists chasing too few academic careers.

That has been the reality for some time, but the message is yet to penetrate. The US report says that lab heads train scientists “in their own image, that is, for a career in academia, though only a small minority will obtain tenure-track faculty positions”. Postdocs say that an academic career is still presented to them as the default outcome. There is a “complete lack of information on number of postdocs”, notes the US report.

There is a gap between reality and expectations. Ironically for a career that demands dispassionate judgements based on data and evidence, the postdoc experience is too often a leap of faith that leaves bright and talented people disillusioned and directionless.

The solutions are many, but will require time because they demand a change in culture. Postdoc contracts need to be more than an entry-level position for a career that few will follow. Institutions that offer them must be transparent about future prospects and help postdocs to develop transferable skills to ease their transition into the broader job market.

The philosophy can be boiled down to this: it is a good thing, for both the individuals and society at large, that these young people spend some of their most productive years tackling research. And it is a good thing that most take that independence into other occupations.

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
516,
Pages:
7–8
Date published:
()
DOI:
doi:10.1038/516007b

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